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Wolfgang RIHM (b. 1952)
Symphonie "Nähe Fern"
Nähe Fern 1 [12:13]
Dämmerung senkte sich von oben [3:48]*
Nähe Fern 2 [10:53]
Nähe Fern 3 [10:25]
Nähe Fern 4 [10:12]
Hans Christoph Begemann (baritone)*
Luzerner Sinfonieorchester/James Gaffigan
rec. June, 2012, Kultur- und Kongresszentrum, Lucerne, Switzerland. DDD
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC 902153 [47:35]

Wolfgang Rihm, the German composer, is as prolific as his work is varied. Yet he is not so well known as the inventiveness, beauty and depth of his music suggest he should be. For the most part non-tonal, his is a sound-world easy to luxuriate in. Other of Rihm's works demonstrate the acknowledged influence of composers such as Lachenmann, Nono and Morton Feldman. His work could be described as broadly Expressionist now, although he did experiment with 'New Simplicity' in the 1970s and 1980s.
 
The inspiration for the music on this CD ought to come as no surprise, then: Brahms. Rihm firmly believes in the composer's duty to communicate, to externalise thoughts and feelings and provide accessible music for as broad a spectrum of listeners as possible. This does not mean that his music is diluted or insipid. Rather, that it appeals very directly to the relationship which it must have with older music, more familiar music - and hence with listeners' expectations.
 
Written to a commission from the Luzerner Sinfonieorchester and the Lucerne Festival, the Symphony "Nähe Fern" was premièred in Lucerne in August 2012. The title comes from a line in Goethe's poem, Dämmerung senkte sich von oben (also set by Brahms)… "All nearness is distant". A short orchestration of the poem comes second on this short CD (at less than 50 minutes) from Harmonia Mundi.
 
Again there is a relationship: between the typical Goethean paradox and the straightforward notion that what is near - the modern in music, say - is part of or visible from what is far, what comes earlier in time, in musical history; and vice versa.
 
Rihm is linking to, referencing and following Brahms. Not for the first time: other Rihm works draw extensively on Brahms' music and his musical vision. It's to be remembered that Schoenberg too saw Brahms as a progressive. This symphony is not a pastiche. It's colourful and thoughtful in its own right. It makes its own way through territory that Rihm has laid out quite independently of any late-Romantic thickness. It's modern music; yet music that knows it can't escape the past; nor does it want to.
 
The playing of the Luzerner Sinfonieorchester under James Gaffigan is sharp, incisive, appropriately-paced and precisely focused. Yet it's also playing which admits of exploration, reflection and an unhurried examination of the priorities which a modern composer has - particularly texture and melody, harmony and tempo.
 
The gentle, slow third movement is a good example: we're never rushed. At the same time, there is never a sense of delay or meandering. This sense of purpose is one of Rihm's strengths. The players are fully aware of the need for a balance and achieve it well. The finale, which brings the work to a quiet, peaceful and resolved end, though without any aching resignation, is a beautiful moment; and one made the most of by the orchestra here. There’s no undue attention or rhetoric.
 
Rihm responds to and continues to create his own long, flowing, melodies; as did Brahms. One hears echoes of Brahms and his orchestral style. There are no direct quotations - or, if there are, they are fleeting … a bar at the most. The references are discrete and nuanced not extractions or mere direct homage. It is almost as if Rihm is walking the same path that Brahms walked but a century later.
 
So this is expansive, judiciously grand, orchestral music. It is never overwhelming and never pretentious or too concerned with sound and impression. Neither is it at all derivative or fussy. It's eloquent and self-assured symphonic writing never lacking in direction or purpose. It is sonically intriguing and delightful.
 
The acoustic is spacious, responsive and conducive to best hearing of this music. The accompanying notes in French, English and German provide useful background as well as Goethe's text. 

Rihm is a composer well worth exploring. His music appeals on so many levels that it's hard to imagine anyone not finding something here. Whilst not being, perhaps, the most typical of the composer's style, the Symphony "Nähe Fern" is a good indication of one important direction taken by the latest of Rihm's over 400 completed works. Played convincingly, the approachable music on this CD makes it well worth a try.
 
Mark Sealey

Experience Classicsonline